Trailer-park recluse leaves vast toy-car collection worth $100,000

July 06, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- Jack D. Crain was a reclusive man who loved cars.

Just how deep his passion ran nobody knew for sure until his death two months ago, when visitors who ventured into Mr. Crain's modest mobile home in Watsonville found the sum of his lonely life's work -- an estimated 4,000 model car kits and metal toy cars dating back to the 1950s, stacked 6 feet high in every room.

Excited collectors are describing the find as a mother lode of models. They say it ranks among the most complete toy-car collections in the United States, a treasure trove of Americana, perfectly preserved in cellophane and worth perhaps $100,000.

"It's simply amazing to find something like this," said John Mellon, a Santa Cruz, Calif., model-car dealer. "I was just flabbergasted when I saw it."

Mr. Crain ordered many of the cars by mail and spent his final years surrounded by them. He never mentioned his collection to anyone, say the few people who knew him.

He never married. He had no children. When his collection is sold at several auctions later this fall, the proceeds will go to his only living close relative, his mother, 89-year-old Dorothy Wright, who lives in a Carmel, Calif., convalescent home.

Inside his drab mobile home on Blanca Lane, where the drapes were always drawn, Mr. Crain also left every issue of Motor Trend magazine dating back to 1950, carefully bound and cataloged. Next to them, he had every issue of Road & Track back to 1961.

"He wasn't crazy," said neighbor Evelyn Morelli. "That was just his hobby. He didn't have a pet, he didn't have a wife. He didn't have anything else."

Mr. Crain, originally from southern California, worked for 25 years as an electronics technician for Western Electric in Modesto, Calif.

When he retired in the mid-1980s, he moved to Watsonville, said Carmel Martin, a Monterey, Calif., attorney handling the estate.

"I only met him a few times," said Mr. Martin. "He was a very quiet man, an interesting, mysterious kind of a guy."

Mr. Crain lived alone off Social Security and retirement checks. In his later years, he ordered nearly all his possessions by mail, including vitamins, which he ate by the thousands.

"He was a nice guy, but he was very private," said neighbor Mac Morelli. "He had his ways of doing things, and you couldn't change them."

Mr. Crain suffered a stroke in 1991. His health gradually deteriorated, and he could no longer drive the AMC Gremlin, the Chrysler New Yorker or the AMC Javelin he owned.

On April 27, he died at age 67 in Watsonville Community Hospital.

Mr. Crain's legacy is the stuff of childhood memories. Although he built perhaps 100 of his cars, most appear exactly as they would have on shelves at hobby stores decades ago.

As if suspended in time, boxes from companies that have long gone out of business bear quaintly inexpensive price tags, some as low as 87 cents.

There are about 2,000 plastic kits for everything from hot rods to elegant Rolls-Royces, 27 carrying cases of Hot Wheels, hundreds of Matchbox cars, and coveted items such as the unopened 1966 Batmobile kit, worth $500, and the Green Hornet Black Beauty, for which one man has already offered $600.

A&A Auction placed a small notice advertising the collection this month in a toy magazine.

Several people have called from the East Coast and one from Europe.

"People were just going bananas," said auctioneer Paul Thompson, who still has not cataloged the entire collection.

Mr. Thompson said he had had one offer of $100,000, another for $60,000. He turned them down until he knows how much the cars are worth. Auctions will be held beginning in late July.

Mr. Mellon estimates the value of the collection at up to $100,000.

Mike Strauss, a San Carlos, Calif., man who boasts a collection of 25,000 Hot Wheels, said large stockpiles of perfectly preserved toy cars dating back to the Eisenhower years don't exactly surface every day.

Major collectors usually know each other, he said. Even more offbeat is the haphazard breadth of Mr. Crain's automotive booty, a clue that Mr. Crain "was not so much a collector as an accumulator," he said.

"Everybody has his own way of coping with life," said Mr. Strauss, author of a Hot Wheels price guide. "That was his. More power to him."

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